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Opinion

The Most Politically Radical Thing You Can Do

Rasheed Newson

For young people passionate about changing laws and changing the world, the most radical thing you can do may be to speak up and live out the one issue on which you insist on staying silent.

Twenty years ago, when I served as a youth delegate at the Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future, I was a loudmouthed, 17-year-old firebrand. Fueled by a (self)-righteous idealism, I didn’t hesitate to speak out against police brutality, the demonization of young African-American males, or the death penalty. I was also a vocal advocate for including youth in policy discussions, and if granted the power, I would have rewritten a thousand laws—like lowering the voting age to 16.

Even though my opinions weren’t always correct, I don’t regret a word I said back then. Cynicism hadn’t touched me yet. I had no hidden agendas, no authority to answer to beyond my own conscience. It’s what I didn’t have the courage to say 20 years ago that still stings: I’m a homosexual. 

I’d known that about myself years before the summit convened in Philadelphia. In fact, I had very little confusion about the orientation of my sexuality. What I lacked was pride. My voice remained silent on the needs and challenges of LGBT youth. It’s embarrassing that I was mute on the matter for so long, especially because I could hardly shut up on any other political subject.

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Rasheed, right, with fellow youth delegates at the Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future in 1997.

At the summit, a handful of youth delegates, myself included, began advocating for the inclusion of a youth speaker during the closing ceremonies. We’d seen youth perform as singers and dancers to the delight of the summit organizers, but not a single youth had offered any substantive remarks. We demanded that someone from our ranks be given time to speak alongside General Colin Powell and other luminaries. If we were denied, we threatened to non-violently disrupt the summit’s closing ceremonies.

Imagine: dozens of youth delegates, standing up in their chairs and chanting loudly over the closing speakers until the rowdy kids were carried away by security – all in front of reporters and news cameras. We had the means to bring the whole enterprise crashing down in dramatic fashion. Summit organizers would have to cave in, we thought.

Press Release
A photo of the original press release the youth delegates issued.

But they told us no. They told us no in no uncertain terms. Former President George H.W. Bush would be on stage, as would then-First Lady Hillary Clinton. The secret service had to vet and clear participants during the closing ceremonies, so it was too much effort and there wasn’t enough time to add a youth speaker into the mix. They asked us to reconsider our plans for a disruptive demonstration.

At this point, many youth delegates lost their nerve. The rest of us were ready to get arrested; I woke up on the last day of the summit prepared to call my parents from some sort of holding cell. Then news came of a major reversal: we could have a youth speaker, and he or she would get two minutes to talk. We had to submit our statement and choose our representative in less than an hour. I helped co-write the statement with a few other youth delegates. As to who would be our speaker, we decided there was only one fair way to make the selection: We drew names from a hat.

I’m telling you this story of a successful youth revolt because the name picked out of the hat was mine. I got to speak at the closing ceremonies. I met all the luminaries. I addressed the largest crowd I’m likely ever to address. I was on C-SPAN. My voice didn’t fail me.

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Rasheed speaking at the 1997 Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future.

So how could I do all that, but not dare utter the words, “I’m gay,” to anyone?  There are excuses I could offer: It was 1997… I was 17… I was a Catholic school boy living in conservative Indiana.

You shouldn’t buy any of them. I don’t buy them anymore. There are always excuses to remain quiet; few, if any, are valid. Instead, if you are a young person eager to change the world, then take my advice: The revolution begins inside of you. Be honest about who you are, what you’ve experienced, what you want, and how far you are willing to go to get it. Be proud.

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Rasheed today, with husband Jonathan and daughter Josephine.

You might change laws, but the most politically radical things you do may come from how you live your life . I’m married. My husband and I have a smart, funny daughter, whom we adopted at birth. I live openly and sleep soundly.

Need I say more?

This blog is part of the #Recommit2Kids campaign, marking the 20th anniversary of America’s Promise Alliance and calling the nation to recommit to action on behalf of children and youth. The Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future is the event that led to the creation of America’s Promise Alliance, a strong proponent of youth voice.